Related: Managing a bad temper in close relationships

I believe most of us have similar problem. We try to avoid conflict with strangers by polite behavior, but we struggle to do the same with our family. We have a saying here that roughly translates to "you are not a close friend if you never fight (argue/disagreement, not literal fight) with each other".

Most of the time, people know me as a patient person - this is true especially at work and with strangers I met on the street. However, I'm short fused at home, especially in a discussion with my dad, which usually will become heated quickly after a minor disagreement.

I'm interested in why we are inclined to be like this? Is this has a connection to our past failed interactions with them?

  • To me it seems to be because if you are close to someone you can be more honest with each other. When you're comfortable with someone you sometimes forget the politeness and etiquette you use when in an argument with someone not so close to you. Commenting because it's just a thought, I have no facts or experiences :)
    – Summer
    Jul 27, 2017 at 12:37
  • Because there's more at stake. Intimate relationships are pretty important to us and affect our self-perception. If they are threatened or you feel disrespected in them the anger you feel tells you about the emotional risk involved. Jul 27, 2017 at 14:31
  • I think, shortly, because we care more about those relationships, so we are more involved. Jul 28, 2017 at 14:33
  • I would question whether this is some universal law about human nature. I would also question whether this question is on-topic. This question seems more like philosophical speculation than practical advice about interpersonal relationships.
    – user288
    Aug 4, 2017 at 17:37
  • 3
    Meta post
    – Vylix
    Aug 4, 2017 at 17:38

5 Answers 5


I had a conversation with a Sunni fellow who had immigrated to the US that seemed remarkable to me. I was asking him about his perceptions of relationships with other middle eastern groups, and (due warning), his views were quite racist. However, in this instance, they point to an important principle that I think goes deeply into why we struggle so much in close relationships.

I asked him about the Coptic Christians, and he said, "Not a great people."

I asked him about the Jews, and he said, "yes, well they are the enemy."

I asked him about the Shiites (another branch of Islam), and he practically spat, "they are not even people!"

This entire interaction took me quite by surprise. Why would his vitriol be in an inverse relation to how similar the group in question was? But, of course, within that question also lies the answer.

The more similar and related someone is to us, the more they seem like a reflection of us, the more threatening differences become.

I will guess that you have terribly little jealousy of the Queen of England. Which is perhaps a bit odd. She is the largest personal landowner in all of Britain, fantastically wealthy, and adored by many the world over. It would be great to be in her place!

However, many folks get awfully jealous when a colleague gets picked up for a choice extra project at work, or when one of their close friends seems very happy in their marriage.

The problem is that we can't relate to the Queen. We can't imagine ourselves in her shoes, so there is no threat in her success. But a coworker or a childhood friend is another matter entirely. We can imagine their successes being our successes, and we desire them.

The opinion or actions of a parent, a child, or a spouse feels so personal that it borders on the existential. If my dad is angry at me, this becomes a central, visceral threat. If my kid is failing at social studies, this becomes a reflection upon me as a parent. If my spouse disagrees with me on how to spend our collective budget, this impinges on my way of life and on my central priorities.

If my buddy from work wants to buy a different model baby monitor, the existential threat isn't removed; it never exists in the first place. Similarly, if someone from a completely different walk of life decides to plant a different kind of seed in his field, I am unthreatened. It has no bearing on my life or who I hold myself to be.

The closer another person is to you, the more they seem like a fun house mirror image, and the more even the smallest differences can feel like an attack on your very being.

  • Pff, why the Queen? Bill Gates is younger, probably richer, male, and has a lot less on his schedule. Feel jealous of him! ;-) Jul 27, 2017 at 14:33
  • I've down voted this answer. Not because of the interaction, but because of your conclusions from it.
    – Zizouz212
    Aug 4, 2017 at 17:37
  • 1
    @zizouz212, I'm not sure what your objection is to the conclusion. There's a fair amount of research into the mirror effect as well. Here's an article that summarizes the theory. (It is not proven, but it makes sense and fits the broad data that we have about aggression.)
    – Ben I.
    Aug 4, 2017 at 18:22
  • @BenI. Why don't you cite that article instead? I would debunk your conclusions, but I'm not willing to put stuff like that online over the internet with my name attached to it.
    – Zizouz212
    Aug 4, 2017 at 18:23
  • @zizouz212 ..."with my name attached"... how could debunking my sources involve attaching your name to something? (I'm not trolling, I'm genuinely puzzled by your response). If this is an area of active research for you (my best guess from what you said), post an answer. I'm sure your sources will be better than mine. I don't read the journals myself, I look at summarized journalism. (I know that's not always accurate, but it is impractical to truly keep up on research in fields that are not my own)
    – Ben I.
    Aug 4, 2017 at 18:45

A factor which influences this (at least for me) is that normally, you cannot "wear a mask" or be "on guard" all the time. You can control your internal feelings while in public, with strangers etc., but there has to be a "home ground" where you can relax and apply less control to your behaviour. The reason is that actually controlling yourself is mentally tiring (even if you don't notice), and you need to rest from it too.

This combines with the fact that you expect people close to you to bear your conflicting behaviour better because you're their close person. This has its merit: you're more likely to get over a close one's behaviour which you would not tolerate in a stranger. Your bond is stronger, so it can take more conflict without breaking.

I don't think we're inclined to behave worse to those close to us. We're just inclined to control ourselves less, and rely on our close relationship to cover for any conflicts. "We're close, we can be honest with each other."

  • the Philosophical concept of honesty is relative. The famous Gordon Gecko quote "Greed is Good" comes to mind here. What he said there was honest, but not necessarily right or good. And I would argue that we have a mask we use with friends too, its just an easier mask to maintain than our public persona we use. The quote above is a perfect example. In public he attempts to portray himself as an altruist, in private self centered and greedy. But neither of those are reality for anyone. Jul 7, 2017 at 15:38

A close relationship is much more complex than the limited interaction with a stranger.

I would echo Chad's answer about being more invested in a close relationship. Things said and done just mean more.

But I would add that a long term relationship resides in our minds as a complex interaction between past positive interactions and negative ones. They reside in our minds by:

  1. How important those instances were
  2. How old they are
  3. Whether they tend to be, on the whole, positive or negative.

For example, if you are going to interact with someone with whom you always have a positive experience, you would have an optimistic expectation. Because you like this person, you would give them more leeway for something that would be counter to that.

On the other hand, you would tend to go the other way with someone you don't like. And you have everything in between. With close relationships, things are just more complex in very many ways.


There are a number of reasons we would be prone to this.

You specify your father. You and your father get into heated discussions. So in this case, the elder, your father, is also prone to this. I doubt it is something he developed recently, so likely your entire life (like most of us, myself included) you witnessed that this is how family treat one another from the start. We have early impressions that stay with us, even before we can remember anything specific. This is called your implicit memory. This covers things like how you expect people to act, interact, how you expect people to treat you, etc. It forms from early infancy based on what you live day to day. It is what is said to be the reason that children that suffer abuse at very young ages suffer the consequences of that for life, even when they have been treated exceptionally as far back as they can recall. The chaos they experienced in early life will forever be part of their implicit memory.

Then you can go on to saying that all of this has likely, since your early childhood, been reinforced to you as appropriate behavior culturally. It is likely you have often seen similar things among all or nearly all the other families you know well. So then, this is reinforced as a very normal, expected way for family to behave.

Then there is human nature. It is very difficult to maintain being on one's best behavior at all times. As such, we are likely to allow our worst behavior to be done around and to those we are closest to for several reasons. One is that we have to function in society at a certain level to be able to live at all. You have to have income, you have to get assistance at times from others, even meaning through services you pay for (doctors, car repair, etc). If we were at our worst out in the world, we could effective alienate ourselves enough that no one wants to bother with is at all. So we cannot afford to do that. So we instead bottle up the junk and take it home with us usually. Then the other reason in part, I am sure, is that we have some level of expectation that the love and bond we share will grant us forgiveness for the bad behaviors. That is likely true for most of us.

You have to recall though, that treating one another well seems to be a relatively recent idea in family settings. In many places you are permitted to be violent to your own family with no recourse. Even where I am from (USA) it was permitted for men to beat wives and children for a very long time. It is only recently we have decided you have a right not to be hit at home. So we as humans have historically been capable of being pretty awful to those we "love" and seeing that even as normal and having it be an accepted practice within societies. There have been some cultures historically that were more like now, but many were not.

So I think there are likely a number of reasons we do it and the reasons we continue are most likely, like your saying, we accept that as normal. That said, I do not think we have to and have done my best to raise my family not to with relative success. My spouse and children are welcome to vent to me and each other and we do. We do try very hard to treat each other better than we treat anyone else. We have worked on things with communication and with boundaries and respect. I think our parenting approach helps us there, as we do not yell, we do spank, we do not take items from them, etc. We teach and mentor and lead instead, so we do not treat our kids like they owe us more respect than they are given nor that they are less than we are. I understand they need limits and guidance and they have been given those. They are not yet capable of making certain decisions and understanding the consequences of certain things. That is all covered. The difference is that I do use my position of authority to excuse me treating them ways that are less respectful than I would do with an adult. The reason I think this helps is it is far removed from how I was raised and it's work to not do the things that I was raised with. It is equally hard for my spouse. So when we are interacting as a family, we are used to already using thought, taking a step back, and being careful how we respond to a situation and once you are used to using this kind of thoughtful approach to your behavior, it is easier then to translate into all the ways you are interacting as a unit. My hope is that one day, when my kids are all grown (some are, some are young), that this will feel very natural to them to just do automatically, as it's been very hard for me and their dad to try to break that chain.

I do not want what I have said to make it sound like we are taught to treat one another badly. I think quite the opposite in fact. I think it comes rather naturally. I have had all my babies start to want to slap me when angry before they could walk. They didn't even have to be angry at me, but I was the one closest and there is an instinct for nearly all children to act out physically when upset (hitting, kicking, arching, etc). I would grab the hand, redirect, teach. I simply think we accept this part of our natural instincts versus trying to teach a gentler approach, they way we obviously would automatically start teaching our children not to hit us or one another. Instead, we have overall thought this is the way it is, so we haven't spent the effort it takes to help ourselves get past it.


Because, we are more invested in that relationship so any conflict in a close relationship is going to seem more serious to us than the identical conflict with someone with whom we have a very distant relationship. Because the relationship is valued more and is more central to your life, the conflict is going to be felt more often and more acutely than one with a distant relationship with someone you rarely have any direct or indirect communication.

This concept is a fundamental to the philosophical theory of Objectivism first developed and documented by Ayn Rand.

  • @curiousdannii - I dont post for rep so that is fine... But it is not my intent to promote anything. I did not want to be accused of trying to claim the concept was my original thought. Jul 7, 2017 at 15:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.